Nothing causes more deaths in the United States each year than heart disease — not even cancer. The lifestyle choices we make, from how much or little we exercise to what we put in our mouths, have a pretty big impact on our risk for heart disease. But is there a connection between gut health and heart health?
We all know, for example, that diets high in saturated fats and sugar are particularly harmful. Research is also shedding new light on the gut-heart axis: a direct connection between your gut and your heart that is mediated by your gut microbiome. Hippocrates was the first to say “let food be thy medicine,” but he probably didn’t know why food is such a powerful “drug.”
In this article, we dive deep into the connection between gut health and heart health, including the role microbes play, and how what goes into your mouth — especially fiber-rich food — impacts your heart.
What is cardiovascular disease, and who’s at risk?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella term used to describe any disease affecting the heart (cardio) or blood vessels (vascular), including coronary heart disease and others. A good rule of thumb is this: all heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, but not all cardiovascular diseases are heart diseases. Cardiovascular diseases include:
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
The three big risk factors for developing heart disease are:
- High blood cholesterol
- Overweight and obesity
Each of these “big three” can be caused other underlying conditions or certain medications, but often result from certain lifestyle factors:
- Not getting enough exercise
- Poor diet
- Overconsumption of alcohol
Notably, the big three risks/conditions (hypertension, high blood cholesterol, overweight and obesity) also contribute to a person’s risk of developing diabetes, which in turn further increases a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people without diabetes.
Gut health and heart health
While protecting your heart involves more than gut health, scientists increasingly are demonstrating connections between a diseased gut and the development of cardiovascular disorders.
What is a healthy gut?
Simply put, gut health is the overall health of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the stomach, small and large intestines, and other organs. A healthy gut effectively breaks down food and absorbs nutrients, protects against infection, and keeps inflammation in check.
Researchers are discovering that when your gut microbes are in a healthy balance, clinically referred to as “gut homeostasis,” potential harmful microbes are kept in check and the intestines are kept in optimum condition for absorbing nutrients and preventing inappropriate inflammation. This is mostly due to the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) — major end products of bacterial fermentation in the human colon that are known to have wide-ranging beneficial impacts on host physiology. For example, the most commonly researched SCFA, butyrate, has a wide range of benefits that protect your gut from inflammation and help maintain its integrity.
Medical providers typically define “gut health” as the absence of certain characteristics such as GI symptoms (e.g., diarrhea and bloating) and disease (e.g., Crohn’s disease, diabetes). Research also recognizes the critical role of the gut microbiome — the bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that live in your gut — in maintaining gut health. Even absent outward symptoms of discomfort or disease, your gut could harbor a microbiome imbalance — also called “dysbiosis” — that could contribute to a wide variety of conditions.
Gut integrity is particularly important; if connections between your cells are weak, this can lead to a condition called “leaky gut,” or intestinal permeability, which is associated with increased inflammation. Certain “bad” bacteria produce a protein called zonulin that can actually poke microscopic holes in your intestinal lining, causing inflammation and reducing your intestines’ ability to properly absorb nutrients.
The critical role of fiber for gut and heart health
Fiber — a non-digestible carbohydrate — boosts gut health by acting as food for good gut bacteria, enabling them to produce beneficial compounds (such as SCFAs). Studies have shown that increasing fiber — whether through your diet or with the right supplements or both — can indeed alter your gut microbiome and thereby result in myriad long-term health benefits.
Fibers that specifically promote the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in your gut are called prebiotics. Several prebiotics have been extensively studied for their cardiometabolic benefits:
Beta glucan fibers capture bile acids, thus lowering your blood cholesterol and lipid levels. Beta glucans have also been shown to lower blood pressure. These fibers can be found in cereal grains — including oats, barley, wheat, and rye. They can also be found in fungi (mushrooms), yeast, bacteria, and algae or seaweed; or, in supplement form (the Eden’s 3:1 Synbiotic Superblend includes barley beta glucan).
Carob fiber, from carob fruit, has been shown to lower total LDL cholesterol levels. A comparable form of it, locust bean gum, is a fiber extracted from carob seeds, and it is available as a dietary supplement (and is one of the ingredients in the Eden’s formulation.)
Resistant starches, including Solnul™ (the resistant starch ingredient in Eden’s), have also been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Plus, resistant starch (and other fibers) may aid in weight management as they leave you feeling fuller, longer; and weight control is a key element of cardiovascular health. Resistant starch has also demonstrated an association with lowering the amount of fat stored in the body.
- Oat bran, also that included in Eden’s, has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels even in the absence of efforts to reduce dietary fat intake.
All prebiotic fibers are soluble fibers, which also include gums, pectins and fructans. But not all soluble fibers promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Nevertheless, many soluble fibers, which aid in nutrient absorption, have beneficial impacts on the heart even if they aren’t digested by good bacteria. Soluble fibers have been linked to lower serum cholesterol levels, specifically low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or the “bad” cholesterol deemed a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. These fibers reduce cholesterol levels by removing bile acids from the gut. Because cholesterol is a key building block for making new bile acids, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood in response to its removal from the gut to rebalance new bild acid levels, protecting your arteries from plaque build up and its downstream effects.
The role of probiotics
Some species of probiotics — live microorganisms that confer a health benefit on the host when consumed — have recently been shown to elicit cardiovascular benefits as well. This may be in part because they can beneficially alter the gut microbiome when consumed.
Bacillus coagulans (B. coagulans) is a probiotic with several unique features and health benefits, including its general benefit to gut microbiota balance and its efficacy for lowering triglycerides — which has significant cardiovascular implications. For example, a recent double-blind trial demonstrated that people who took a probiotic blend including B. coagulans SC208 (the specific strain included in Eden’s) experienced significantly lower triglyceride levels starting six weeks after supplementation compared to people who took a placebo. Another study showed that supplementation with a prebiotic and probiotic regimen including B. coagulans SC208 for 90 days reduced visceral fat (the fat that surrounds organs) by 35%.
The role of polyphenols
Microbial metabolism can also play a role in the beneficial effects of micronutrients, such as polyphenols, a category of phytonutrients (compounds produced by plants that have beneficial effects on the body) that includes flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, and stilbenes. Most polyphenols work as antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals that can damage cells and potentially increase risk for disease.
The relationship of polyphenols to the gut microbiome is bi-directional; they can impact composition of the gut microbiota and help balance good and bad bacterial growth, while gut microbes help metabolize polyphenols into compounds that are more easily absorbed. The general mechanism of action for polyphenols involves the promotion of a healthy inflammatory response, neutralization of damaging free radicals, and a resultant positive impact upon the gut microbiome.
While research is ongoing concerning the precise ways in which individual polyphenols contribute to reducing risks for various chronic conditions and other disorders, many polyphenols are believed to be beneficially involved in a wide variety of health effects, and certain of them exert distinct antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective effects.
One example is curcumin, a polyphenol found in turmeric (one of the ingredients in Eden’s) that has been scientifically recognized for its anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective properties, specifically its role in helping to regulate several lipid pathways and lipid transport mechanisms.
Green tea also contains polyphenols that in some research have demonstrated efficacy in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Consuming green tea also has been shown to speed up fat breakdown, both at rest and during exercise, which indirectly may reduce CVD risks in overweight or obese individuals.
- Eden’s synbiotic supplement includes “Oligonol,” an ingredient that combines individual polyphenol molecules extracted from powdered tea leaves and lychee fruit. Olignol is essentially 85% lychee and 15% green tea, and it has been clinically proven to have excellent absorption, which may enhance the efficacy of multitudinal health benefits. A 2018 study with obese females determined that supplementation with Oligonol reduced serum triglyceride concentrations. Triglyceride concentrations in your blood, derived from fats, are a marker of CVD risk.
3-in-1 Synbiotic Superblend
Summarizing the diet-gut-heart connection
Clearly, diet is but one component of a healthy lifestyle that affects your gut as well as your heart. Other lifestyle factors do, too: smoking, heavy consumption of alcohol and a lack of exercise are three such factors that significantly increase your risk for cardiovascular disorders. But when it comes to the gut-heart connection, diet is definitely one of the major influencers of cardiometabolic health and disease.
Decades of research have irrefutably established that particular diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) that are rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats reduce a person’s risk not just for heart disease, but for diabetes, obesity and overweight, cancer — and the list goes on. You can adopt and adhere to the most important elements of these healthy diets by focusing upon the following strategies:
Up your consumption of fiber. Most Americans eat less than half the daily recommended amount. Don’t be part of the majority. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes are all high in prebiotic fibers, which have been shown to promote a healthy balance between good and bad fats and reduce a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.
Focus on plants also to up your polyphenols. And remember: plants aren’t just fruits and veggies: whole grains, legumes, and nuts are also plants. And so are coffee and tea. Most plant-based whole foods are not only rich in fiber, but also antioxidants, which reduce cellular stress and can protect against cardiovascular diseases.
- Be smart about fats. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which wreak havoc on our bodies, raising levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol). High LDL levels increase a person’s risk for atherosclerosis, which can eventually result in the development of coronary artery disease and heart failure. On the other hand, healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats (found in avocados and some nuts and seeds) and Omega-3s (found in fatty fish and vegetable oils) increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (the “good” cholesterol). They also improve your body’s ability to absorb certain compounds, including beneficial polyphenols, such as curcumin, which is found in turmeric.
Limit your consumption of red meat. It turns out that not all gut-produced metabolites are beneficial. While SCFAs are predominantly associated with beneficial impacts, one metabolite — TMA — is a bacterial metabolite produced from the fermentation of choline, phosphatidylcholine, and L-carnitine, which are found in red meat, poultry, and eggs. When transported to the liver, TMA is converted into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a molecule that is highly associated with atherosclerotic plaques and elevated risk for cardiovascular disease. This is one reason why healthcare professionals urge us to limit our consumption of red meat. The other reason: red meat contributes to high cholesterol levels, as we discussed previously in the “good vs. bad fats” section. Bad fats increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Limit your sodium intake: While this dietary factor may not affect gut health per se, it is of vital importance for cardiometabolic health. A 2018 review confirmed numerous previous studies concluding that excessive sodium intake is associated with several adverse effects on health outcomes, most notably elevated blood pressure, putting you at higher risk for CVD as well as cerebrovascular diseases (e.g., stroke), kidney diseases and type 2 diabetes.
Consider taking a probiotic. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits when consumed. While their most medically accepted indication is for relief of gastrointestinal distress (e.g., symptoms such as diarrhea), studies in both animal models and humans have shown that probiotics can elicit several benefits to the heart, including reduced blood pressure.
- Consider taking a dietary supplement. If the aforementioned dietary guidance gets a bit challenging to adhere to on a daily basis, a dietary supplement may make good sense for you; ask your healthcare professional. The Eden’s 3:1 Synbiotic Superblend includes scientifically-backed prebiotics (resistant potato starch, locust bean and guar gums, oat bran, and barley beta glucan), probiotics (B. coagulans, yeast, LGG, and LPC-37), and polyphenols (from gold and green kiwifruit, lychee, green tea, and turmeric) that complement one another and combine to support your gut, heart, immune, and metabolic health. Learn more: What is a synbiotic?
The connection between your gut health and heart health is complex and multi-faceted, and what we eat plays a big role in the health of both. Diets rich in bad fats and sugars will wreak havoc on your gut, metabolic, and cardiovascular health. Fortunately, adopting a healthier diet is one of the easiest ways to improve all of these interconnected organ systems. Upping your fiber consumption is job #1, together with focusing on healthy fats and limiting sugar and salt — all available with a balanced, plant-forward diet. Additionally, you might benefit from a dietary supplement containing prebiotics or probiotics, or better yet a synbiotic combination, such as Eden’s 3:1 Synbiotic Superblend of plant-derived micronutrients scientifically proven to support gut and heart health. Talk to your healthcare provider for further guidance.